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Sonny Rollins: On Impulse

Partly because I have such enormous regard for Sonny Rollins’ best work, his inconsistency, which most critics seem unaware of, drives me nuts. Rollins has been praised for his “thematic” improvisation, during which he devotes a lot of attention to repeating and varying phrases rather than tearing through the changes like Sonny Stitt. His method of unpredictably fragmenting his lines and varying the speed of his playing, now double-timing, now half-timing, now rushing ahead, now laying back, also is fascinating, and in these areas Rollins has had a significant influence.

However, often when Sonny engages in motivic and speed variation and playing asymmetrically he gets too playful, causing his improvisation to be coy. When he recorded with John Coltrane in the 1950’s, Rollins recalled, in fact, that Trane, who looked up to him, expressed disappointment with his lack of seriousness. Sonny’s at his best when he’s employing thematic development and changing speeds while performing with discipline. At worst, when he does these things without discipline, the momentum of his solos keeps getting broken off.

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